Last week a potential new client asked: How can you give me a stylish interior? Having recovered from the shock and mild panic of the moment and having explained the basic premise, it made me wonder just how I would go about explaining ‘style’ in more detail.

Can you define style?

The dictionary describes stylish as having style, being smart and fashionable. But I take issue with this. Fashion is of the moment, the now. But style has longevity. Fashion implies conformity and following the trend, a known entity. But style is indefinable. Fashion ultimately will become unfashionable.

The fashion photographer, David Bailey made the observation, “style is a natural thing and has nothing to do with taste”, and after a lifetime of working in an industry surrounded by beautiful objects and people, he should know.

I think there is a scale here: if fashion is a moment in time and a fad a short blip that doesn’t catch on, then style should be a fashion that transcends its sell-by-date and becomes an ever present.

Can you buy style?

Well, you can surround yourself with a quality that is perceived as stylish but it won’t necessarily make for a stylish environment. You can’t apply something that creates a style. Style is inherent; it either has it or it doesn’t.

What you can do is avoid elements that have an overbearing visual appearance that is part of a trend, such as a highly decorative wall covering. A finish such as this will undoubtedly make an attention-grabbing focal point but will appear out of place as the fashion for that particular pattern wanes.

It’s not that stylish has to mean safe either. For example, the avoidance of all patterns and colour and creating flat surfaced environments in whites and beige. Environments can be provocative and stimulate great debate and still be revered as stylish. Just look at some of Rennie Mackintosh’s projects.

It is also worth noting, that environments and products that are perceived as being aesthetically pleasing are generally thought of as being easier to use and potentially more stylish. It may be that a quirky or unstylish space does actually work better if only the users would look beyond the aesthetic. But the bias towards elements that are thought attractive sway people’s perception.

Perception is merely reality filtered through the prism of your soul
Christopher A. Ray

Part of the stylish debate is that of the user’s perceptions. It is no different from the accepted attractiveness of a person. Many studies have proven that people who are regarded as attractive are trusted, receive more attention, receive more lenient judgements in court and earn more money.

The built environment is no different. But people do follow the path of least resistance and it’s more likely that an environment that’s seen as being stylish owes a tremendous amount to historical references. The comfort of the known.

The known unknowns

There are quite obviously some unseen factors at play here too. Why are people able to pick out a product or environment above others as being stylish but not be able to define why? It appears it’s also about the attitude of a subject. Now, this could be a ‘proportion ratio scenario’.

These are ratios that define whether an object and space feel comfortable, which users would be unaware of yet able to identify subconsciously their preferred choices. For instance, the Golden Ratio, Golden Mean or Golden Section (depending on which book you read) where the ratio between two elements of the same object is a factor of 0.618. This is found throughout nature and art and you may have seen it diagrammatically illustrated with the spread-eagled man drawing.

Studies have shown that people show a subconscious preference for situations where the ratio is present. Some good examples are Notre-Dame Cathedral, Eames LCW chair and the Apple iPod. All aesthetically pleasing, all with a strong sense of style and all designed around the Golden ratio.

The rule of thirds

Or perhaps it’s the Rule of Thirds. This is a situation whereby placing an invisible grid over an element allows the designer, artist or manufacturer to position critical factors within the grid or at the intersections. The results of utilising this format are universally agreed to be aesthetically pleasing and if you consider the 2/3 ratio as a number you realise that the 0.666 gives you a rough approximation of the Golden Rule.

There is also a perception of value being high where items are described as stylish and this may bring into play a situation described by some as ‘Horror Vacui’ or ‘the fear of emptiness’. People feel the need to fill spaces yet there is an inverse relationship with a filled space and value. The easiest way to explain this is to think of a shop window.

If it’s full to bursting with clothing displays the perception is one of low value and low quality. Yet if you saw only two items in the whole space you instantly think they are objects of higher worth. Now when you begin to apply all of these visual and spacial ratios they will undoubtedly lead to the creation of aesthetically pleasing preferred situations. And if the surface finishes are easy on the eye as well, then I believe we are beginning to see the root of stylishness. Whether we know it or not.

Getting into a stylish groove

Stevie Wonder sang, ‘just cause a record has a groove don’t make it in the groove’ and I think this applies to style too. Just because an environment has a style doesn’t mean it’s stylish. The overused French expression, ‘je ne sais quoi’, which translates as, I don’t know what, is always applied to describing that certain unknown something. This is a universal cop out because explaining what stylish means is not that straight forward as we have seen. It appears to be a number of subconscious factors that come together to produce a pleasing outcome.
So how can I give someone a stylish office interior? Well by using three basic guidelines I would hope to get somewhere close.

  1. Steer clear of the latest fashion or at least limit its use. Utilise as accents and points of interest that can be periodically updated.
  2. Use the aesthetically pleasing ratios of design, including the power of symmetry (that’s a whole new blog topic in its own right).
  3. Don’t be afraid to leave open space and avoid the temptation to fill every area.

But after all that how do you describe stylish? It’s all about that certain indefinable quality... that je ne sais quoi. Hmm, it’s not easy is it?